Like most snooty book nerds, I turned my nose up at audiobooks for a long time. I know how to read. I don’t need to listen to someone else read a book to me, I thought. Audiobooks are lazy. But then I realized that there were certain activities not well suited to reading a print book—operating a motor vehicle, for instance—that took up a good portion of my time. Time I was spending NOT reading books, which is just a travesty. Audiobooks allow me to read MORE books than I could the traditional way, and I am all about that!
I soon found that when it comes to audiobooks, the narrator can make all the difference. A good narrator can bring life to a mediocre text, while a bad narrator can ruin a great work. And you’ll be surprised at some of the big names who have recorded audiobooks (Benedict Cumberbatch, anyone? I don’t know about you, but I’d listen to that man read the phone book).
In addition to books on CD and Playaway (a pre-loaded MP3 player), your library has digital eAudiobooks available for download. Both Overdrive and hoopla make it very easy to search by narrator, so when you hear a great voice, you can quickly find other books they’ve read.
Here are a few of the best audiobook narrators I’ve encountered. Who have you discovered?
I first discovered Will Patton as a narrator of Stephen King books, and he is great. I can still recall the way his voice broke when a character cried out in terror. It wasn’t just great reading; it was great acting. Then I discovered that he also narrated one of my favorite YA series, The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater. I went back and forth between reading this series in print and listening to it, and forever after that first Will Patton reading, it was his voice I heard in my head for the characters. Especially Calla. You are missing out if you have not heard Will Patton’s Calla.
Some audiobook narrators are remarkable for their versatility; the characters they create are so diverse that you can barely tell it’s the same person reading them. Kate Mulgrew is not one of those narrators. She pretty much always sounds like Kate Mulgrew. But that’s okay, because she has a great voice! It’s so rich and velvety. If you’ve ever wanted Captain Janeway to read a horror book to you (and who hasn’t?), definitely check out The Fireman or NOS4A2, both by Joe Hill.
I don’t really have a great anecdote to share about Rebecca Soler. She’s just a really good narrator. She makes the voices of each character so distinct and individual, you can tell who is speaking without her having to say their names. She reads mostly YA novels, including the Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer, the Caraval series by Stephanie Garber, and Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, which was probably my favorite YA book of 2017.
My Harry Potter friends would be horrified to hear me say this (yes, I am the type of person who has friends she met solely through the Harry Potter fandom), but I actually never listened to the series on audio, read by the wonderful Jim Dale. I have it on good authority it’s great. But the book I am going to recommend to start your soon-to-be love affair with the voice of Jim Dale is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. It’s probably my favorite adult fantasy novel of the last ten years, and there’s just something about Dale’s voice that lends itself to tales of magic.
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the first series I got into on audio, thanks in part to the narrating prowess of Roy Dotrice. I listened to the first three books on CD in my car, and when I checked out the fourth, it had a different narrator. Now, there was nothing really wrong with this other narrator, he just was not my beloved Roy Dotrice. That wasn’t how the characters sounded! I needed Roy! That’s when I discovered streaming audio. I searched, and I found him, and all was right in Westeros. Okay, maybe not, but all was right in how Westeros sounded, at least.
Funny story: That other narrator I just couldn’t handle for GoT? That was John Lee, and part of the problem is that I had previously heard his excellent narration of Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey. No, not THAT Grey. This one has far less BDSM (none, in fact) and far more forbidden love in a “colortocracy,” a societal hierarchy ruled by which colors your eyes can perceive. Fforde’s novels are clever and silly and absolutely nothing like the high fantasy politics and violence of GoT. But John Lee is a talented and prolific narrator, having read everything from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to pirate adventures to science fiction epics to history and biographies.
A good author does not necessarily a good narrator make. I’ve heard some authors really butcher their own work at readings. But Neil Gaiman is not one of those authors. I love his voice. I’ve listened to full cast recordings of some of his books, and while they’re excellent, I missed Neil (exception: American Gods read by a full cast, but Gaiman reads the “Coming to America” interludes). The Graveyard Book is probably my favorite to listen to him read. His voice is so dark and dolorous that it really adds the perfect atmosphere to a book about an orphan raised by ghosts.
You probably know Edward Herrmann as Rory’s grandpa on Gilmore Girls, or from one of his many other film and TV roles (he will forever be Max from The Lost Boys to me). He just has one of those voices where you hear it, and you instantly think, “That’s a great voice!” His reading of The Tommyknockers, not one of Stephen King’s very best, elevates the book to a new level. He also reads a great variety of books, including biographies of John Adams and Albert Einstein, and for young readers, the Geronimo Stilton series.